The Founding of New York Chapter II

A Series of Articles Written by Thomas A. Janvier for the New York Times, In commemoration of the 250th Anniversary of the Founding of the City of New York.
Chapter II: The Dutch West India Company

New Netherland was the name given by the Dutch whose own country was called the Netherlands, or Low Countries to the region about the river that Hudson had found. The first official record of that name is in a trading license granted by the States General of Holland a governing body corresponding in a way with our Congress to certain Dutch merchants in the year 1614; and the name also appears on a queer old map that was made in the same year.

After the fur trade fairly was opened, the affairs of the little colony that consisted only of the trading post on our island and of a few other trading posts in the back country were managed for a time by an association of merchants known as the New Netherland Company. Then, on the 3d of June, in the year 1622, the great Dutch West India Company was chartered by the States General; and among the many rights granted to that company were the rights to own, to govern, and exclusively to trade with, New Netherland. That was a very unfortunate arrangement for the little colony, as the government that the company, gave it was bad from first to last. In order to understand why that government was bad it is necessary to know a part of the company's history.

The West India Company was a stock company organized by merchants, but it was created less to carry on peaceful trade than to make war against Spain. For many years the Spaniards had oppressed cruelly the inhabitants of the Netherlands, and the desire in Holland an in Belgium to fight Spain and to thrush her was very strong. Mr. Motley has told the story of that famous struggle between the little power and the big power in his history of "The Rise of the Dutch Republic," and a better story of brave fighting for noble principles never has been put into words.

In the very year that Hudson came into our harbor in the half Moon, the year 1609, the Dutch had signed with Spain a twelve years' truce. They wanted time to pull themselves together, because most of them meant to go on with the fighting when the truce came to an end. But some of them were willing to submit to Spanish rule and did not want to fight'; and between the war party and the peace party there was a conflict through all the time that those early Dutch ships were coming here for furs. The conflict ended in the year 1621, when the twelve years' truce expired; and it ended in the war party getting its way.

The most persistent worker on the war side was the founder of the West India Company, Willem Usselinex who was one of the many Belgians driven by Spanish persecution to take refuge in Holland. Before the troubles began, he had been a merchant in Antwerp and had traded to the Spanish colonies. From what he had seen in the course of his voyages he believed that those colonies from which Spain drew the greater part of her revenue were so ill-defended that they could be captured easily; and he also believed that even a small force of ships, with good fighters on board of them, could capture some of the treasure fleets which in those days were sent homeward from the colonies to Spain. His plan, therefore, was to organize a stock company which should fit out a strong naval force; and with that naval force should take possession of so much Spanish wealth that the power of Spain would be broken and the Netherlands would be free. That was a patriotic project but there was another side to it that was not patriotic. One of the strong inducements which Usselinex offered to make people buy stock in his company was that very big dividends would be paid when the Spanish cities in America had been captured and when the Spanish treasure ships had been brought home. The bad ending of the West India Company was due directly to that mixing of patriotism and money-making. Such an attempt to blend the highest and purest motive for human action with the lowest and impurest motive for human action was bound to come, as it did come, to a miserable end. We have a direct interest in that ancient matter. Because the West India Company was organized on sordid lines, our city was started badly and was badly ruled.

Usselinex carried through his project, and for a time the West India Company was splendidly successful. Rich conquests were made in America; and still more magnificent winnings came with the capture by Admiral Peter Heyn of the Spanish silver fleet laden with so much treasure that, to quote the company's own report of the matter, "never did any fleet bring to this or to any other country so great a prize." That big assertion was justified by the facts. The lowest estimate of the treasure in the seventeen galleons brought safe home to Holland was twelve millions of guilders and that is not far from being equivalent in value to twelve millions of our dollars of today. But the men who won that great treasure were not the better for it. They were the worse for it. Getting it so turned their heads that they took no further interest in small matters, and either neglected or mismanaged their ordinary affairs. For the most part they did both. Our little colony which was of such small importance that the name of New Netherland does not appear in the West India Company's charter only came in for its share in the general misrule: that extended to the other colonies, in Africa, in the West Indies, and in the Brazils.

In the end, getting precisely what it deserved to get, the West India Company came to miserable ruin. One after another its valuable possessions were lost to it through its own weakness and incapacity; and all that now remains in Dutch hands of the principality that it founded are the little islands of St. Eustatius and Curacoa in the West Indies, and the scrap of territory in South America known as Dutch Guiana, or Surinam. This last has a peculiar interest for us. When the war between England and Holland was ended an account of that war will come later a treaty was signed in the year 1667 that is known as the Treaty of Breda; and by the terms of that agreement the Dutch were permitted to keep Surinam, in return for permitting the English to keep what then was called New Netherland and what thereafter was called New York.

The victories won by the West India Company did have much to do with breaking the power of Spain and winning the independence of the Netherlands; but it mixed its patriotism with its desire for money-making, and so lost the glory that it otherwise would have earned. Its part in that splendid war was the part that a sailor on board a ship in a storm would take should he refuse to help in saving the ship unless he got extra pay.

In the government of its colonies the company showed precisely the same selfishness and the same greed that it showed in the war. All that it cared for was to make money out of them; not a particle did it ever manifest of the patriotism that would have developed and strengthened them and so added to the strength of Holland by giving them capable rulers and liberal laws. A good government must have much the same qualities that a good man must have. it must be honest, it must be just, it must care for the welfare of those dependent upon it, it must protect the weak from the oppression of the strong. The West India Company had not one of those good qualities and that was why our city and our colony were governed so badly in their early years.

As human nature has not changed much since those days, it is only by fighting all the time for it that we can save our city and our State from having just as bad a government even now.
                                                                                                                                                     THOMAS A. JANVIER

Note: Thomas A. Janvier is the author of "In Old New York," "In Great Waters," "The Passing of Thomas," "In the Sargasso Sea," "The Uncle of an Angel," and "The Aztec Treasure House."


Website: The History
Article Name: The Founding of New York Chapter II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times May 26, 1903 Page: 8
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